I have read that Paris has recently fallen in love with American musicals. This one, inspired by the great Vincente Minnelli - Gene Kelly film, was hailed at Paris's Chatelet Theatre this past fall. All of us musical theater fans have been curious about how the great contemporary ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon would do with a big Broadway musical. I'm delighted to say that AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is a lavish, joyful inpressive entertainment.
The first thing to say about AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is that it is not a simple, faithful adaptation of the film. Like the film, it uses Gershwin songs (far more than the film), including the extended orchestral piece that gives the show its title, but it does not use all the same songs. Arranger Rob Fisher has mined a lot of Gershwin work to create a rich, varied score. Second, book writer Craig Lucas has kept the central characters of the film but has not simply adapted Alan Jay Lerner's screenplay. The Paris of the stage musical is darker, even a bit menacing. Collaborators are beaten up. Resistance members still try to keep their activities secret. Lisa's Jewishness is crucial to the narrative. All the characters are more developed.
The Minnelli film was visually ravishing. The central character, Jerry Mulligan, is an artist, and the film was full of paintings and sketches that come to life, most beautifully in the American in Paris ballet. In the stage musical, Jerry creates art that is more appropriate for 1945, very Matisse influenced, so the ballet has a very different look, but it is stunning. The scenic design (Bob Crowley) become the canvas for impressive projections (59 Productions). Crowley's costumes are as ravishing as anything I have seen in a musical. Some might quibble about Wheeldon's choreography -- not that it isn't excellent, but that it depends almost totally on ballet. Gene Kelly's choreography had a little bit of everything from tap to modern dance to ballet, but Wheeldon has not branched out as, for instance Jerome Robbins did in his musicals. I would venture to say that many in the audiences that are now filling the Palace Theatre have never seen so much ballet in their lives. One can only hope that it leads them to want to see more. The American in Paris ballet elicited roaring approval from the audience at the performance I attended.
Perforce, the two leads are not just ballet dancers but two of the best currently dancing. I certainly know that Robert Fairchild is a terrific dancer with movie star good looks. The surprise is that he is a decent singer and a very good actor. If Hollywood still made the kind of musicals they made in the Golden Age, Fairchild would be the next Gene Kelly. Leanne Cope doesn't radiate as much personality, but she sings sweetly The two of them dance up a storm. I don't know how they do this eight times a week. The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Brandon Uranowitz in a rewrite of the Oscar Levant role (no one would imitate Levant). Max von Essen is fine as Lise's French fiance. The only thing that puzzled me in Lucas's book were the hints that Henri is gay. His character might have been more interesting if he were trying to deal with that in 1945 Paris, though France was never as repressive about homosexuality as Germany or England. Jill Paice brings personality to the role of the American heiress who loves Jerry in her way. The ensemble-- really a corps de ballet -- are terrific.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is a grand, gorgeous entertainment. You don't get to see many shows like this these days. If I gave stars it would get five.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Palace Theatre. April 8, 2015.